TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich looked across UA’s practice football field and felt as though he was in “heaven.”
It’s his utopia, his classroom.
“Let me watch a guy run his drills and I’ll tell you how good a coach he is,” said Kirelawich, mixing in his trademark expletive bomb in there. “Don’t give me that crap about drawing X’s and O’s and all that. I don’t care. It’s about teaching a guy about playing football.
“There’s never been an X and O that’s jumped off a board and won a game for anybody.”
Straight from the heart and mind of Coach Kirelawich (Ker-LAV-ich) — or Kerlav, as the upperclassmen call him.
“I don’t think you’ll hear the freshmen call him Kerlav,” Rodriguez said. “When you are a snot-nosed 18 year-old freshman, you don’t. You have to earn that.”
As they should for a guy who figured he’d be retired by now. He’s 65, a proud father of three hard-working, intelligent grown children, and there was plenty to do back in West Virginia. In fact, the other love of his life — Maggie, his wife of more than 33 years — is back home just outside of Morgantown, W. Va.
But, Rodriguez called nearly two years ago and well, he took the call.
“He can’t retire,” Maggie said, “he doesn’t do idle well.”
And so, Kirelawich is in Tucson, working Arizona’s defensive line, barking out orders, impacting student-athletes and enjoying what he calls “the sting of the battle.”
Kirelawich is a former linebacker at Salem University and longtime assistant at West Virginia.
“There’s only one guy — ONE GUY — I’d do this for. Even if Vince Lombardi, God rest his soul and as much as I loved him, would have called … it’s Rodriguez,” Kirelawich said. “If he called, I was going.”
“He asked me, ‘What do I bring,'” Rodriguez said. “I said, ‘Bbring your tooth brush, a change of clothes and underwear.’ “
Kirelawich packed and is now among the saguaros and rugged mountains.
“Nobody but Rich,” Kirelawich said. “He played for us (at West Virginia). Nobody gave him a thing. He busted his (expletive) as a player and as a coach. He demands a lot but he makes it work. They are going to win (at Arizona) because he demands it. He will will it and get it done.”
Rodriguez recalls a different Kirelawich from more than 30 years ago. “He wasn’t as loud then. He was young,” Rodriguez said. “I was just happy he knew my name.
“He made an impression. We had a great coaching staff back then. One of the reasons I got into coaching was the knowledge these guys had in football. I could tell from the first practice who had the knowledge and passion for the game. He was one of them.”
Nothing’s changed. He knows coaches are judged on your last victory or defeat.
He roams the sidelines on what appears to be gimpy knee, baseball cap, towel over his shoulder and chewed up cigar in and out of his hand. Central casting couldn’t have done a better job.
“Crusty is a good word,” Rodriguez said. “He’s a unique individual.”
Who would play him in the movie? “Robert De Niro … He’s good looking,” Kirelawich said, laughing out loud in a scratchy east coast accent.
Each and every day he reads the obituaries — and not for the reason people joke: to see if they are in the paper — but to read about the lives of those who have passed. He looks especially for World War II veterans. He wants to know their stories. He said his biggest influences have been his father, Vince Lombardi and George Marshall, chief of staff in World War II.
He sees his purpose as identifying the best in people — no matter how small — and getting that out of them. And that makes him a perfect for an Arizona defensive front that ranked last in the Pac-12 in sacks (16 in 13 games) and 11th in stopping the run (206.2 yards per game).
His introduction to Arizona was an eye-opener — and it had nothing to do with the desert landscape. The biggest surprise?
“It was the (team’s) overall lack of strength,” he said. “We had a very weak team. I was at West Virginia for 30 years, so I have only one team to compare it to, but we had big, strong kids there. They lived in the weight room, and we proved it every year. And, I was surprised we had so few defensive players.”
Rest assured, he’s not one to avoid tackling the issues head on.
“He’s an old salt dog who doesn’t play games or sugar-coat anything,” said senior tackle Tevin Hood. “It’s great that he does that because feelings are not involved. It’s never personal, just business. It’s the best way to be (as a coach). He’s uncensored, and people who haven’t played for someone like him don’t get them. But that’s who they are. But I’d rather know the truth than beat around the bush or guess what they are saying.”
Wallflowers need not apply. “Put your feelings in your pocket,” Maggie said, of one of her husband’s common expressions.
His youngest son, Jacob, said his dad was like an M&M candy — tough shell but soft on the inside.
“He’s tough on everybody because he sees the best in everybody,” his older son, Billy, said. “He demands the best from the players and his kids. He always said to me: ‘Don’t do anything half-assed.’ He want the best. He cares.”
Kirelawich describes himself as a “no window-dressing guy. It’s how I want to be dealt with.”
Maggie has another word to describe it: Honesty.
“Some people tell you what you want to hear,” she said. “He didn’t. He was very up front. He can’t help it. He’s very blunt.”
Maggie stayed in West Virginia to be with her 93-year-old mother, who moved in right before Kirelawich took the job at Arizona. Bill and Maggie talk at least three times a day — morning, noon and night.
“Sure I miss her; It’s hard,” said Kirelwach. “I married up. She’s smart as hell.”
Kirelawich does have Billy here to help. Billy is the team’s operations manager.
“We hang out and go golfing and it helps to have family here,” Billy said. “He hasn’t been away from my mother since the early 1980s. He doesn’t get homesick, but to have someone here to be his buddy and play golf with helps. ” Retirement can wait, although he dismissed the thought that some people aren’t meant for it.
“I don’t buy that,” he said. “Hell, I would. … There’s a lot of bad golf to be played.”